North of Blue is like an abstract painting that's been stretched into a 60-minute movie. If you're having trouble imagining what that would look like, that's because you've probably never seen anything like it. Joanna Priestley, a native Portlander and animator known for her short films, offers some sage advice for those unsure how to watch her first feature: "Sit back, relax and enjoy the journey."
When the film begins, it simply begins. There's no tutorial to teach you how to interpret the unusual objects in front of you. It's more like an immersion program—you're simply thrown in. Shapes that look like trees and pinwheels, snowflakes and waves morph and wash away, accompanied by Jamie Haggerty's intricately designed original soundscape.
Sometimes it's feels as if you're looking at protozoa under a microscope slide, wispy flagella rowing across the screen. Other times the screen resembles a Kandinsky or Mondrian painting. Anything you see only lasts a moment; the image is always evolving.
Priestley's blog about North of Blue (northofblueblog.wordpress.com) is a fascinating read detailing her experience making the film from inspiration to completion. The idea came to her during her residence at the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture in Dawson City, Yukon, Canada, a gold-rush town of approximately 1,300 located less than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle. This forlorn setting, the frozen tundra with its windswept lakes and spindly trees, provided inspiration in shapes and forms and the stark palette, emphasizing blue and red, white and black.
"North of Blue was a deeply joyful project," Priestley says. "Every morning, as I arrived at my studio, I had this delicious, expansive feeling of being in a vast, wild landscape, like the Yukon, with all the time in the world to explore new territory and experiment with unfamiliar imagery."
So, is there some hidden meaning behind North of Blue? Priestley maintains the film is "completely abstract."
"Discarding representation in my work has definitely increased the joy level of my animation," Priestley says. "When we see objects, we often subconsciously label them, and that creates a familiarity that can shut down further visual and intellectual exploration."
In that case, who is the audience for an abstract animated feature?
"Making North of Blue was a process of exploration and experimentation that involved very little thinking about distribution," Priestley says. "When it was done, I hoped to show it in as many film festivals and countries as possible. I thought this meant the audience would be mostly adults. But at the first screening at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, I was surprised to see children in the audience. I was even more surprised to get feedback from them and their parents that they loved the experience of watching it."
The film has already appeared at 19 festivals in a dozen countries, including Russia, where it was shown continuously on a 24-hour loop.
"Watching a completely abstract feature film is a unique experience," Priestley says. "I am very grateful to find that North of Blue audiences have shown an acute visual literacy, and their very positive response has transcended age, gender and even culture."
SEE IT: North of Blue plays at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., nwfilmorg, on Sunday, Nov. 4. 7:05 pm. Directors Joanna Priestley and Arianna Gazca will attend as part of the Northwest Filmmakers' Festival. $5-$10.